The start of the new year at the University of Jeromeville felt a little different this year, because I finally had a well-defined career goal: I was going to teach high school mathematics. A few years ago, I remember having told people that I could never be a teacher, because of all the politics involved with education. The professional organizations and labor unions for teachers tended to lean far to the left of most of my political positions. I just assumed that I would stay in school forever and get an advanced degree in mathematics, unless I thought of something else to do with my life in the meantime. But after a positive experience last spring helping out in a high school math classroom, and a negative experience last summer doing math research, I had decided not to let politics get in the way of doing something that I would enjoy doing.
School started on a Thursday, as it always did, and as was the case most quarters, Thursday was my lightest day of classes. I was working as a tutor again this quarter, so hopefully I could schedule lots of tutoring groups and sessions on Thursdays. My only class that first day was Writing In Education, which met on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late morning. I took Advanced Composition as a sophomore, which, combined with the AP English test that I took in high school, satisfied my writing requirement. I could have taken Writing In Education instead of Advanced Composition, but I did not know two years ago that I would be going into education. Also, if I stayed at UJ for my teacher training, that program required twelve units of English as a prerequisite, so this class would count toward that. I could take a fun English class later this year to finish that requirement, if such a class existed.
I took two math classes that quarter. The first one was Theory of Numbers, which met Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays in the morning. I walked into the class Friday morning and took a seat on the left side of the room against the wall. The class met in Younger Hall, in the old part of campus facing the Quad. This was a classroom with chairs that had writing desks attached, not a lecture hall with fixed seats, but it was a relatively large classroom, holding around sixty students. Students continued trickling in, and shortly before class began, Sarah Winters walked in and sat in an empty desk on my right. I smiled and waved.
“Hey, Greg!” she said.
“We finally have a math class together,” I pointed out.
Sarah was another mathematics major, and I had known her since our first week as freshman at UJ. When we were freshmen, she lived downstairs from me in the same dorm and was also part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. She had been part of some of my most memorable moments and adventures, but despite being good friends and having the same major, this was the first, and only, time we ever had a math class together.
The professor, Dr. Alterman, was also at the time the Chair of the Mathematics Department, so I had heard his name around the department a bit . He was an older man who spoke in a way suggesting that German was his first language. I was not entirely sure what “theory of numbers” meant; Dr. Alterman explained that it was the study of positive integers. Number theory dealt with questions involving prime numbers and prime factorizations, modular arithmetic, and divisibility, which quickly built into much more complicated results. This class sounded interesting so far. Numbers were something I could easily wrap my head around.
After lunch, I had my other math class, Introduction to Abstract Algebra, in Wellington Hall on the other side of the Quad. Since this was a required class for all mathematics majors, I recognized many students whom I had had in classes before, including Jack Chalmers, Katy Hadley, and the student formerly known as Andrea Briggs. Andrea was my first crush at UJ, but I quickly learned that she had a boyfriend, whom she had recently married. Sarah was not in this class; I wondered why, since it was required. Although normally a senior class, it is possible to take it as a junior; maybe she had taken it last year. I never did learn why.
Abstract algebra was once described to me as algebra without numbers. Abstract algebra studies the relationships between the elements of a set and the operations done to the element, categorizing such relationships so as to show that mathematical structures that are used for quite different purposes can sometimes be very similar. This sounded fascinating, but difficult to conceptualize. The professor for that class was Dr. Hess, and he spoke clear English, something unusual among the mathematics faculty at UJ. I had heard of him before, because he was married to Dr. Thomas, another mathematician at UJ and one of my favorite professors. I knew of at least one other married couple among the UJ mathematics faculty besides them. I began looking around the classroom with the fleeting thought that maybe mathematicians were destined to marry each other, and maybe my future wife was in this class. If so, the girls in class did not give me much hope. Andrea was married, Katy and I never really seemed to click, and the rest of the girls in this class weren’t very attractive.
I was in University Chorus again this quarter. Before, chorus had always met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 12:10 to 1:00, but this quarter the time had moved to only Mondays and Wednesdays, from 4:10 in the afternoon until 5:30. After going through the procedural first day matters, Dr. Jeffs, the conductor, handed out the syllabus. “You’ll notice something unusual,” he said. “On October 9, a week from Thursday, we have a performance.” A few in the room gasped. I found “October 9: Waite Hall Dedication” on the syllabus Waite Hall? Hall, as in a building on campus? I knew this campus well from all of my explorations on my bike, and I knew of no Waite Hall.
“The drama building next door is being renamed, in honor of Dr. Cecilia Waite,” Dr. Jeffs explained. “In 1928, Dr. Waite became the first woman to be offered a tenured faculty position here at the University of Jeromeville, and she will be the first woman to have a building named for her. Back when UJ was just an agricultural college, Dr. Waite was considered the founder of the English department. She was also an accomplished poet, and we will be singing ‘Doors of Learning,’ a piece with lyrics written by Dr. Waite, and music composed by a former professor here in the music department. We will also sing ‘Hail, dear Jeromeville,’ the UJ alma mater.”
“The ceremony will be an hour long, from 9 to 10,” Dr. Jeffs continued. “All of the performing arts groups will be at this dedication. Attendance is mandatory. So if you have any conflicts with other classes, talk to your professors now.” I did not. I would have to run straight from there to English, possibly in my chorus tuxedo, but I would not have to miss class. And when I filled out my availability to work for tutoring, I had not put 9:00 on Thursdays as an available time slot; I wanted one day of being able to wake up a little bit later, if possible.
“We’ll be practicing these two songs for the first two weeks, then we will move on to the other pieces we’ll be doing for our regular concert in December.” Dr. Jeffs instructed a few volunteers to pass out sheet music for Doors of Learning and Hail, Dear Jeromeville.
Last year, when I began doing chorus, I learned very quickly that reading sheet music was not my strong point. I took piano lessons in childhood for a few years, so I knew how sheet music worked, but I was not experienced enough to learn a new song exclusively from sheet music. Both of the other times I did chorus, the campus store had a CD of the piece we had to learn in the textbook section along with the sheet music, and I learned my part by listening to the recording while singing along from the sheet music.
No such recording existed of Doors of Learning, and by the end of that first rehearsal, it had become obvious that this song would be very difficult to learn. Having been composed by a professor of music in 1970, it was full of very strange, nontraditional chords,. The lyrics itself, a poetic description of life at a university, would have some semblance of rhythm if they were spoken without the music, but the strange music seemed to eliminate all traces of rhythm from the poem.
On Wednesday, the next time we met, we began rehearsing Hail, Dear Jeromeville. This song was much simpler. The marching band played it at the end of every football and basketball game, so I had heard it before. It was in the unusual key of D-flat major, which may have made it difficult to play on instruments, but this would not affect me as a vocalist, as long as I knew the starting note. The chord progression used simple, predictable chords, and the four parts of the chorus sang the song in unison, so there were no strange modern harmonies to adjust to. Halfway through the class, we switched back to Doors of Learning, but this time we divided into groups, sopranos and altos in one room, and the much smaller group of tenors and basses in the other. With only two parts of strange harmonies in the room instead of four, it was easier to concentrate on my part without the discordant sounds of all three of the other parts throwing me off.
It had been over three years now since I had graduated from high school, and for all practical purposes, I only had one high school friend left. It was more difficult to keep in touch in the 1990s, with no social media or texting and long distance phone calls costing money per minute. Email was a newly mainstream technology, and I had stayed in touch with a few high school friends by email, with varying degrees of frequency. But as more time passed, the emails from high school friends gradually stopped coming. Melissa Holmes was the only high school friend I had heard from in the last several months, and she did not write often these days, being very busy with school herself.
Four years ago, I spent much of my senior year of high school in a secret, internally tumultuous attempt to sort out my feelings for Melissa and her apparent lack of feelings for me. Fortunately, we emerged from that experience still good friends. Melissa moved to the opposite end of the state for school, where she had grown up and where most of her family was. I got an email from her over the weekend after classes started, and I wrote her back Monday night, telling her about the very weird music I had to learn for chorus.
She replied about a week later.
From: “Melissa Holmes” <email@example.com>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Tue, 7 Oct 1997 10:42 -0700
Subject: Re: hi
Wow, two retreats the same week. Sounds like a great time! I’ve never been to either of those places, but I have been to the Great Blue Lake, and it’s so beautiful up that way.
How are your new roommates? Everyone getting along okay? I moved into a small studio apartment by myself, a little closer to campus this year. Classes are keeping me busy. I haven’t really been doing much else.
I’m glad to hear you’re doing chorus again. Good luck on that building dedication ceremony. And you’re right – I got out my guitar and tried playing that weird chord you told me about – it sounds terrible! Hopefully it sounds better in context, as part of the whole piece. Let me know how it goes!
It’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks Doors of Learning sounds strange, I thought, chuckling to myself. I got out the sheet music again, trying to hear the bass part in my head, focusing only on the notes I would have to sing, hoping that I would be able to sing them with three other parts simultaneously singing notes that did not harmonize naturally to my uncultured ear.
By the time of the performance, Doors of Learning had started to sound a little better to me, and I felt like I had pretty much learned my part. Melissa was right; the strange chords and harmonies did sound a little better now that we had put all of the parts together and rehearsed the song in its entirety a few times. The harmonies still felt unnatural to me, but when the song was performed as intended, something just felt like it worked right.
I took the bus to school in my tuxedo on the morning of the building dedication, arriving at the building by 8:45 as I had been instructed. The drama building, and the recently erected sign bearing the name Cecilia Waite Hall, faced Davis Drive just south of the Quad and southwest of downtown. Waite Hall was sandwiched between the music building and the art building, neither of which had been named after people yet. The three buildings faced a paved courtyard with a sculpture in the middle; facing Waite Hall, my back to the street, the music building was to my left and the art building to my right. Inside was a four-hundred-seat theater, with a hallway to the side leading to classrooms and offices. A portrait of Cecilia Waite had been added permanently to the lobby.
I went into a door leading to the backstage area, where we had been instructed to meet. A number of chorus students stood around mingling; I walked up to Scott Madison and Amelia Dye, the newly-engaged couple whom I knew from church. “How’s it goin’, Greg,” Scott said.
“These are some of the weirdest chords I’ve ever heard,” I said. “But I think I know my part now.”
Amelia offered reassurance. “I’m sure you’ll do fine,” she told me.
“And, just think,” Scott added, “if you mess up, there’s lots of other guys you can try to blame it on.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
Dr. Jeffs called us to attention, announcing that the ceremony was about to start. He explained that we would perform Doors of Learning about halfway through the hour-long ceremony, and Hail, Dear Jeromeville at the very end. When we were not performing, we were to sit silently backstage, so as not to interrupt the speakers and the other performance groups.
From where I was, I could hear everything happening on stage. The speaker introduced himself, then spoke for a few minutes about Dr. Waite and her contributions to the English department, the dramatic arts department, and the university in general. When he finished this, I heard him say something that surprised me: “And now, will you please welcome to the stage, Professor Emerita Cecilia Waite!”
As the crowd applauded for Dr. Waite, I realized that it had never occurred to me that she was still alive. From all that I had heard about her in the last two weeks, I associated her with the early history of the university, since she joined the faculty in 1928. Dr. Waite spoke for several minutes, after which the master of ceremonies returned to the stage to introduce a brief performance by drama students. They were followed by the concert band.
We were next. When the band finished, the master of ceremonies announced us, and I followed everyone else onto the stage. We walked onto risers that had been placed at the back of the stage, and Dr. Jeffs took his place to conduct us. I looked out at the room full of university dignitaries and noticed a small, frail-looking woman who appeared to be at least ninety years old in the front row. This was definitely Cecilia Waite; I recognized her from the portrait I had seen half an hour ago. She smiled through the entire performance of the song with the lyrics that she had written. Despite the nontraditional harmonies, I thought we sounded pretty good, especially with the full orchestra accompanying us as well.
We returned backstage while the Chamber Singers performed, followed by an instrumental performance of the orchestra and a few other performing groups. Others shared stories about Dr. Waite in between the performances. At 9:55, as the ceremony reached its end, we returned to the stage to sing Hail, Dear Jeromeville, with the orchestra backing us again. As we finished, the entire room applauded. I smiled. I had never been honored by a group of university mucky-mucks before, and while I was certainly not trying to impress anyone, I appreciated their approval.
I got a few interesting looks from classmates walking into Writing In Education in my chorus tuxedo, but when someone asked, I simply explained that we had a performance for chorus this morning. After class, I immediately took the bus home, then changed into normal clothes and ate lunch at home before riding my bike back to campus to meet with the students I was tutoring that afternoon.
Cecilia Waite passed away in 1999 after a battle with cancer. I saw a much smaller reproduction of the portrait in the lobby on the obituary page of the Capital City Record one morning and realized something looked familiar about that picture, then I saw her name in the headline, and it all clicked. Dr. Waite had lived to see her legacy on the sign in front of the building, and now I was a part of that history. Many years later, the social media pages of the Jeromeville Alumni Association shared a photograph of Waite Hall and a short one-sentence biography of Cecilia Waite. “Do you remember what it was called before that?” the caption asked. I typed, “Before that, it was just the Drama Building. I was there in 1997 performing with University Chorus at the ceremony to dedicate the building under the new name. Dr. Waite was there too.” When I began studying at Jeromeville in 1994, I thought of the campus as just a place to go to school, but the longer I had been here, I was finding myself relating and connecting more and more with the history of this campus. I had a connection to this campus now, and I still feel that connection to this day.
Readers: Have you ever been part of a local ceremony like this one? Or do you have any noteworthy connection to your local history? Tell me about it in the comments!